Israel's fourth election in two years: What are the differences this time?

 
THIS ELECTION, like the previous three, is very much a referendum again on Netanyahu, but with a twist.  (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
THIS ELECTION, like the previous three, is very much a referendum again on Netanyahu, but with a twist.
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

In other words – and in the spirit of the upcoming Passover holiday – how has this election campaign been different from all the others?

Here we go again.
For the fourth time in two years, a nation weary of voting will trudge back to the ballot booth on Tuesday in the faint hope that this time things will be different; that this time when the nation wakes up Wednesday morning, it will have rendered a verdict that will make the formation of a stable government possible.
Some will argue that this is a vain hope.
They will argue that since the candidates are pretty much the same, and the people voting for the candidates are pretty much the same, why should this election be any different from the previous three that followed one after the other in rat-a-tat succession. Why should the present election campaign not end up in a hung jury, as did the previous ones?
Truth be told, it very well might. But this campaign felt different from the other three, and this time there were different elements at play – or not at play – that may lead to small changes in voting patterns that could perhaps lead to a more conclusive result.
In other words – and in the spirit of the upcoming Passover holiday – how has this election campaign been different from all the others?
Corona
When Israel voted on March 2, 2020, the coronavirus had only just arrived in the country, the first case having had been identified some 10 days earlier. Lockdowns, going to work or school in “capsules,” the Zoom explosion were all things very much in the future. The virus played no part in that election, nor in the two campaigns of 2019, when, to most people, Corona was still only the name of a Mexican beer.
This time the virus is in the starring role, crowding out all the other issues that were dominant in the previous campaigns: the indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which played so prominent a role in the two elections of 2019, and the annexation issue, which was such a big issue before the March 2020 voting.
This election, like the previous three, is very much a referendum again on Netanyahu, but with a twist.
If, in the past three campaigns, the question was whether a prime minister under indictment and about to stand trial should and could run the country, this time the referendum is over Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic. 
The question about whether Netanyahu can serve as prime minister while on trial has become almost passé, as the last three elections have shown that the country is pretty evenly split on that matter – half say yes, half say no – and no new developments in the cases have succeeded in moving the needle one way or the other.
But what about Netanyahu’s management of the pandemic? The Likud’s campaign has largely been monochromatic, focusing on the success he has had in securing the coronavirus vaccines. Netanyahu’s opponents are saying that outside of that, everything else he has done regarding the virus has been a disaster.
Gilad Kariv, No. 4 on Labor’s list, summed this sentiment up well during a campaign panel hosted this week by the English-speaking Herzliya Cultural Group.
“Aside from the great success of the vaccines, the government has totally failed in running the pandemic crisis,” Kariv said.
“The fact we have 6,000 casualties tells the entire story. Golda Meir resigned after the Yom Kippur war – even though she won the elections after the war – because of 2,700 casualties. Menachem Begin left the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street after the First Lebanon War because of the casualties, and said ‘I cannot deal with it anymore.’ And Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing 6,000 casualties, and is celebrating a great victory over the pandemic – I think that is unbelievable.”
The question is to what degree the public agrees that this is “unbelievable,” or to what degree does it feel that what is “unbelievable” is placing the responsibility for those deaths – as well as the economic hardships the coronavirus has wrought – on Netanyahu. Those are questions no one imagined in the previous three election campaigns, but could possibly make the whole difference this time around.
Who’s running for prime minister?
Israelis, over the years, have become accustomed to knowing who is running for prime minister when they cast their ballot. Granted, in a parliamentary democracy Israelis vote for parties, but it was generally clear in the past that there were two choices for prime minister: Begin or Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin or Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu or Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Yitzhak Herzog or Benny Gantz.
But who is running for prime minister this time? It’s Netanyahu against whom, exactly?
Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid spent much of the campaign playing down any prime ministerial ambitions, saying only that Netanyahu must be replaced with a “sane government,” but not wanting to place himself as Netanyahu’s opponent, in order to deprive the prime minister of being able to cast the race as one between Netanyahu – the Right – and Lapid, whom Netanyahu characterizes as the Left.
Ironically, while Lapid, whose party in the polls is constantly appearing as the second-largest faction, with 19-20 seats, after the Likud, did not declare his candidacy for premier, two leaders of small parties – Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar – did declare their candidacies for prime minister, even though their parties were polling only in the 10-12 Knesset seat range. In previous elections parties winning 10 Knesset seats could perhaps make a strong claim to the justice or interior ministry portfolios, but not for the premiership.
This is a unique situation, and as such it is not clear how the lack of two clear alternatives for prime minister throughout the campaign will impact on voting.
No ideological debate
This election, like the previous three, was all about yes-Bibi, no-Bibi. But, unlike in the previous campaigns where there was at least a thin ideological layer on top of the “yes-Bibi, no-Bibi” question, this time there is none.
For instance, in the previous campaigns the Palestinian issue was discussed.
Questions of a policy toward Gaza, which was a salient issue before the first election; of whether to annex the Jordan Valley, a key issue in the second election: or whether to annex 30% of Judea and Samaria as allowed for under the Trump plan, a major issue in last year’s balloting, have all but disappeared in the current campaign. These issues didn’t come up; or if they did, only on the extremes – raised by Meretz on the far Left, or the Religious Zionist Party on the far Right.
How to deal with Iran was a nonissue in this campaign, perhaps because there are no great differences among the leading parties. How to move forward with the Palestinians? A complete no-show in this campaign.
It has long been an axiom that when Israelis go to the polls, they vote on foreign policy, security and diplomatic issues, and not – as is the case in most Western democracies – on domestic and social welfare matters. “It’s the economy, stupid” has never been a campaign clarion call here. But this time all the diplomatic and security issues have been absent in the campaign, as if the challenges posed by the Palestinians, the Iranians and the region have just disappeared.
Even Hamas, which over the last three elections has made it a point to heat up the Gaza border just prior to the voting – in September of 2019 even firing a rocket at Ashdod as Netanyahu was holding a rally there – has this time remained largely quiet. This is the first election in two years not accompanied by an escalation in the South.
No American intervention
This is the first time in years that Washington has not subtly, or less subtly, signaled who its favorite candidate is.
In 1996 then-president Bill Clinton made no secret of the fact that he hoped Peres would defeat Netanyahu, in 2015 Barack Obama was clearly hoping for a Herzog victory, and in the last three elections Trump did what he could – recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights just prior to the April 2019 election, and unveil his “deal of the century” just prior to last year’s balloting – in transparent attempts to give Netanyahu a boost.
This time the White House has stayed clear of the elections. 
While some might argue that one of the reasons US President Joe Biden took a month before calling Netanyahu after being sworn into office was that he did not want the premier to use a call any sooner as proof in his campaign of a close relationship, the new administration has made no comments or taken any action that could be interpreted by any but those with X-ray vision as favoring one candidate over the other. While many assume Biden would prefer some other Israeli politician to answer his calls in Jerusalem, he has not really done anything to demonstrate a preference – and that is rare. 
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has been unable during this campaign to highlight his foreign policy expertise prior to this election to the degree that he has in the past. In the weeks prior to the first election in March 2019, he traveled to Chad, Washington and twice to Moscow; in the two weeks before the September 2019 voting, he made a point of going to London and Sochi; and prior to last year’s polling, he went to Washington to unveil Trump’s new peace plan, and came home via Moscow,
This time, by stark contrast, Netanyahu has been grounded, and his efforts to organize a high-profile trip to the United Arab Emirates before the voting failed to materialize.
The assumption in the past has always been that these high-profile trips close to an election highlight the prime minister’s diplomatic expertise and help him in the voting.
Since Netanyahu, unusually, did not travel at all during this campaign, that assumption will be put to the test when voting commences on Tuesday.